Like the advertising and PR industries tend to do, we are tallying social justice scorecards to cast winners and losers in their response to the nationwide protests of George Floyd’s death, unnecessary force and racial inequality. Statements and social posts, employee programs and benefits, donations and pledges, and even diversification of the leadership slate should not be discounted, but also a body of work from which to not grade quite yet. This is simply a moment in time.

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about NASCAR’s decision to ban the Confederate Flag. I lauded them for standing out in the sports industry for doing something that was more than inward facing and taking action that had greater, long-lasting implications with their fans who flew the “stars and bars” proudly.

What has followed illustrates why a step back is necessary to evaluate and synthesize if the support was about real change or merely a sense to “do the right thing.”

In the case of NASCAR, they issued a mandate and are staying true to that promise. However, not everyone has come along easily, nicely, or even humanely. During the race at Talladega Superspeedway we saw two examples that will bear out how NASCAR might be judged 12 weeks, 12 months and even 12 years from now.

Example #1

Making national headlines, a noose was discovered in Bubba Wallace’s garage prior to the race at Talladega Superspeedway. Both Wallace and NASCAR President Steve Phelps quickly issued statements, and NASCAR vowed an extensive investigation.

The above can be characterized as a standard response. What came next though showed how the mandate of change is being embraced not just the organization, but the drivers (who coordinated this on their own):

A simple, visual and HIGHLY EFFECTIVE message of solidarity and support.

NOTE: Since the incident, the FBI investigation concluded that this was not a hate crime, as the noose was fashioned some time last year and Wallace’s appointment to this garage was sheer coincidence (since this is done based on rankings). While some media noted the discovery should not have been made public until the investigation complete, NASCAR reaffirmed that no matter the circumstance, silence and complacency, even if overcautious, would not be tolerated as they remained steadfast to their commitment of inclusivity.

Example #2

NASCAR banned the Confederate Flag at race sites. But what about off-property? Demonstrating that not all fans would quietly acquiesce to this new edict, race day was marred by road-side displays of the symbol and  a plane flying overhead with the Flag and message “Defund NASCAR.”

While long-term the way fans are unified is an understandable work in progress, the response for the now from NASCAR still shows they are figuring this out:

Courtesy of the above ESPN story:

NASCAR did not acknowledge the plane or its banner, though executive vice president Steve O’Donnell tweeted a picture on Sunday of black and white hands shaking: “You won’t see a photo of a jackass flying a flag over the track here…but you will see this…Hope EVERYONE enjoys the race today.”

While our agency’s counsel in everyday matters is to not engage every Twitter troll or opponent, in this case, you need to respond strategically if you want to be a change agent. The direct way this executive addressed the situation unequivocally stuck to the company position, but unfortunately, whether due to the language, looking to have a single voice on the issue (something always important in these situations) or some other reason only NASCAR knows, the tweet has been since deleted.

These two NASCAR examples provide a real-time case study to other brand leaders about how to navigate their own shift.

Our playbook recommendations:

  • Be Deliberate: In this current environment, the need for immediate response is only exacerbated by the opinion that inaction equals complacency. However, being reactive takes away your power to control the narrative and decide what is right for your external brand and internal culture. Speaking of culture…
  • Be Committed: It is easy to say as a company you are against racism (I mean, I don’t imagine we will be hearing any declarations to the contrary). However, if you are making this an issue which your brand will embrace from top-to-bottom in communications AND culture, make sure that you have the plan, infrastructure, and true internal support to see this through.
  • Be Prepared: Imagine you are company that vows giving to a minority college scholarship program. But what happens if in four years if your diversity hiring numbers have not shifted? What happens if you unveil a new corporate program to foster a more inclusive and supportive workplace, and you still have a group of employees that are not satisfied? It is vital that any company undertaking change walks the walk and is prepared to have an uncomfortable conversation if they deviate from that path.

While the need for effective communication and culture are more important than ever, the core principles remain the same. To take some lingo from NASCAR, while we all might want “green flag racing,” it is  better to not redline and cause an engine failure, or worse yet, crash.